Stamping out racism in sport means social media too

Mario Balotelli was recently the victim of racist online abuse. Peter Byrne/PA Wire

According to figures from the Home Office, only 42 arrests were made for “racial or indecent chanting” at English football matches during the 2012-13 season. Considering that the total number of attendees equates to millions, it could be concluded that racism is no longer a pressing issue in football.

But racism is a tenacious, stubborn and powerful parasite that adapts to survive. Overt racism has declined since the 1960s and 1970s but in its place more covert practices have emerged. Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli was recently the victim of racist abuse after tweeting “Man Utd…LOL” during Leicester City’s 5-3 victory against Louis Van Gaal’s team.

Within moments, racist tweets began to flow. Users swore at him, used derogatory language and called him names. One even suggested he should “get Ebola”. Recent research suggests that around 10,000 tweets are sent every day containing racial, religious and ethnic slurs. It’s clear that racism has found a new platform on which to thrive.

One particularly high-profile case involved former Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba. Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest during a game against Tottenham Hotspur in 2012. This led 21-year-old student Liam Stacey, who was out drinking with friends, to post:

LOL. F*ck Muamba. He’s dead!!! #haha.

The situation escalated quickly, and after several racist tweets, Stacey began to backtrack, claiming his account had been hacked.

Stacey was subsequently sentenced to 56 days in prison and much debate followed about whether this was just. On the one hand, he was not a known or persistent troll, and argued that it was a moment of drunken stupidity. On the other, if the incident remained unpunished there would be no deterrent for future “twacists”.

Joel Ward, an ice hockey player for the Washington Capitals, experienced similar abuse after his series-winning goal against the Boston Bruins in 2012.

Ward, who is of Barbadian descent, suffered racist slurs from Twitter users and was even sent death threats. Among other messages, some users proclaimed that ice hockey was a “white man’s sport”.

This may well be the most extreme case of racism ever witnessed in professional ice hockey. The league’s response was lacklustre though, coming in the form of a series of brief statements issued almost 24 hours later. The vast majority of the perpetrators escaped without censure, with just a handful of Massachusetts high school students suspended from athletic programmes as punishment for their tweets. If weak penalties such as these are in place, online racism is bound to continue.

Fertile ground

The internet is often described as a “safe space” in which users can express their thoughts anonymously. This anonymity makes users feel secure but also separates them from victims. They are protected from the hurt or anger their posts might cause.

The personality and condition of the social media user must be considered when we think about this problem. For example, sporting events often involve drinking which aids disinhibition and racism. Fans can also get “caught up” in the moment as they watch a last-minute goal, a bad tackle or an unexpected sending off. The “knee-jerk reaction” by a player in these last two examples may exacerbate a fans’ likelihood of posting a hateful message on social media without thinking of the potential ramifications.

Push the button

Social networking sites need to take more responsibility for this problem and, to give them their due, they are already making progress. Reporting discrimination was, in the early days, a long and confusing process. Things started to change in 2013 when Twitter introduced an “easy-to-use” system, for reporting abusive messages. Facebook has done something similar.

But there is still room for improvement. Once a report has been sent, moderators have to judge whether the aggrieved party is being abused or being too sensitive. And it’s a very big job. Around 100 hours of footage is uploaded to YouTube every minute and Instagram users alone post around 55m images a day. That really only leaves moderators a matter of seconds to make historical, contextual, political and social judgements about the content.

One way to reduce the number of racial posts would be to include an algorithm which highlights any potentially offensive language before the status or comment is sent.

If an offensive word has been identified, the user might be confronted with an additional pop up message asking them if they are sure they want to send the message. They have one final chance to pause for thought and consider whether their post breaches the site’s terms of service.

People first

In terms of raising awareness, groups like Show Racism the Red Card use education as a tool to challenge racism but this needs to be extended to social media too. The same is true in reverse. While the government is keen to tackle the dangers faced by children online, it is yet to produce an explicit policy on internet hate.

Another option might be more proactive. Victims and observers could choose to challenge abuse head on. Former footballer Stan Collymore, an avid tweeter who encounters his fair share of racism, already does. Collymore often retweets or screenshots hateful messages and reports them. Although this may seem to offer the oxygen of publicity to aggressors, a response like this can be extremely powerful as it exposes those who abuse the sites terms of service and shows that their comments will not be tolerated.

This approach was seen in action in January 2014 when, following a match between Arsenal and Tottenham, some Twitter users posted anti-Semitic comments aimed at Tottenham fans. Collymore took screenshots of the posts and tweeted: “Hope Twitter/police take action”. The post was retweeted almost 2,000 times and favourited by more than 600 users within 48 hours. Exposing racists by retweeting shows that they hold a minority perspective – one that is not welcomed by other users.

The racism experienced by today’s sports stars may be different to that endured by players in the past but that doesn’t mean it has gone away. As Malcolm X once said: “Racism is like a Cadillac. The 1960s Cadillac doesn’t look like the 1921 Cadillac, but it’s still a Cadillac; it has simply changed form”.

Sport fans rarely express racism from the stands. That would most likely result in some form of punishment. Online they feel protected and express their real views. The recent Balotelli incident shows cyber-racism is a pressing issue. Without greater attention and action, players and fans will continue to be confronted with abuse.